Serving and Witnessing with the Filipino Migrant Workers in Diaspora

Pastoral Message of the Obispo Maximo on the Occasion of the IFI’s 113 Proclamation Anniversary

“Jesus came to Samaria in a town called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “will you give me a drink?” The Samaritan woman said to him, “you are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Jesus answered her, “if you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:5-10) 

The Philippines, for the last 50 years, is a leading nation in sending its own people as migrant workers overseas. Joblessness, or the lack of adequate employment, in the country has triggered the diaspora of millions of Filipinos to many parts of the world. 

This diaspora now counts to 15 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) or about 10% of the country’s population and approximately a third of the country’s labor force. They are employed as domestic workers, medical assistants, construction workers, maritime workers, information technology experts, among other kinds of jobs, in Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, Australia and North America. 

Data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) state that under President Benigno Simeon Aquino, the number of OFWs leaving the country has increased. From the 2,500 Filipinos leaving the country everyday in 2009, deployment abroad jumped to 6,092 daily in early 2015. 

For the last three decades, more women are leaving the country. They are mostly employed as household workers, where they are vulnerable to exploitative working conditions. This reflects a gender shift in the nature of labor migration compared to the 1970s, where mostly male Filipinos left the country to work in construction firms. 

Another recent development is the increase in number of Filipino sea-based overseas workers. The Philippines is now the biggest provider of seafarers to international shipping companies. Seafarers compose a special sector of OFWs sailing the global waters on foreign ships and primarily working as deck hands, cabin cleaners, engine room machinist and oilers, and cooks aboard tankers, cargo ships and luxury cruises. 

Estimated at around 400,000, the Filipino seafarers is a major sector of OFWs that contribute to Philippine economy and to global trade. In 2014 alone, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said seafarers’ remittance reached $5.6 billion. However, Filipino seafarers are hired for contractual and temporary employment, receive low wages and suffer from poor labor and safety standards aboard foreign ships. They suffer from unfair labor practices and exploitation and left with almost no protection at all from the Philippine government. 

Instead of addressing the roots of labor migration, the government institutionalized exporting its own people and is now a major economic policy of the state. 

OFW remittance greatly contributes to the growth of the Philippine economy. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas noted the growth of 6.2 percent increase in OFW remittance in 2014 at the all-time high of $26.93 billion, breaking the previous record of of $25.35 billion posted in 2013. 

For this, OFWs were hailed as “modern-day heroes” for keeping the country’s economy afloat at the expense of leaving their families behind to work overseas. But despite their contributions, the state provided inadequate support to OFWs. Migrante International, a global alliance of migrant Filipinos, has long complained of “government’s neglect and incompetence.”  

Migrante International said “series of executions of OFWs on death row, the biggest number so far under one regime, are glaring examples of just how insincere, insensitive and inept the Aquino government is in upholding and securing the protection and welfare of our workers overseas, while ironically also showcasing a more blatant and unapologetic labor export policy that exploits our OFWs’ cheap labor and influx of remittances but sadly offers them nothing in return, especially in times of need.” 

Migrante International documented 123 OFWs on death row and at least 7,000 in jail, many of whom were arrested, detained and go through court proceedings without an embassy-retained lawyer or no lawyer at all. OFWs, as a result, are deprived of due process and go straight to jail without any legal assistance from the Philippine government.  

Stories and narratives of Filipinos in diaspora all point to the same end — the government has repeatedly failed to show any genuine concern and response to the plight of OFWs in distress, and abandoning them in times of crisis and emergency. 

The Iglesia Filipina Independiente, as a Church witnessing with migrants, is concerned with the plight of Filipinos in diaspora and their families left behind. We commend the sacrifices of migrant workers in behalf of their families and their contribution to the Philippine society. We share their pain living in a land far away from their loved ones and working under harsh conditions. We feel their anguish as they fall victims to various forms of exploitation, discrimination and rights violations. 

Looking at their situation with a perspective of social justice, development, and human rights, we strongly believe that OFWs plight will worsen and their rights disregarded as long as the government intensify its labor export policy. The protection of OFWs’ rights and welfare should manifest in the creation of jobs and just wages in the country, regulated control of the prices of basic commodities in the domestic market, and the provision of adequate social services to the poor, which will put a stop to forced migration.  

We strongly believe that domestic poverty is the principal factor behind forced migration. The government should be cognizant of the need to protect the national economy and domestic market from the abuse of foreign capital which exploits the Filipino workers’ cheap labor. We take our stand that the only way to resolve forced migration – and the complex web of social and economic conflicts in the country – is to address the root causes of poverty in the country through genuine land reform and national industrialization. 

The Iglesia Filipina Independiente, therefore, in this regard, opens its doors for a continuing dialogue with OFWs to become a sacrament of the aspirations of the Filipinos in diaspora for a Philippine society where families need not be separated by poverty and social inequality, where labor and persons need not be commodified in the altar of a globalized capitalist economy and market as millions of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, seek a brighter future for their loved ones. 

The Iglesia Filipina Independiente selflessly offers herself as “Church in service and witness” for and with all the Filipino migrants throughout the world, and journeys in special solidarity with them towards the promotion of justice, development and dignity in response to the phenomenon of forced migration. With this commitment, we will seek the cooperation of Churches in different parts of the world in serving the Filipinos in diaspora and in witnessing with them, in the spirit of solidarity and hospitality in the affirmation of human dignity and the universality of human rights. 

The Samaritan woman drawing water from Jacob’s well at noon time icons the millions of mothers and daughters and sisters among Filipino migrant workers who have left their homes to draw water for their families from a well far from home. It was the need for water that drives them outside the shelter of their homes, to carry the heavy potted jar over their heads, walking the distance under the heat of the scorching noon-time sun. 

But the Samaritan woman finds Jesus sitting next to the well. Jesus asks her for a drink and told her he can make her drink living water. She is expecting for water but she is offered the living water. This images the dialectic encounter between our mostly women OFWs with their host country whom they make to drink from their potted jar, and from whom they draw water for their living. 

But Jesus by the well represents the encounter between the Churches overseas and the Filipino migrants. The image gives expression to Churches welcoming migrants and offering pastoral and spiritual care to migrants. The challenge of Christ appearing and revealing himself to the Samaritan woman by the well serves as the foundation for the mission of the Churches in addressing the structural phenomenon of global labor migration and in offering solidarity and hospitality to migrant workers. 

Let us, therefore, celebrate the 113th proclamation anniversary of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente in service to and in witness together with the Filipino migrant workers in diaspora all over the global world. 

In Christ,

† Most Revd Ephraim S. Fajutagana

Obispo Maximo

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